Magazine article The Spectator

Prints, Paris, Picasso Plus

Magazine article The Spectator

Prints, Paris, Picasso Plus

Article excerpt

The British Museum collects prints and drawings in an impressive way, sensibly buying things that are not the height of fashion. Its knowledge of foreign schools is usually ahead of the rest of us. Previous shows, for example The Print in Germany, and Modem Scandinavian Prints, have allowed us to see recent acquisitions promptly, and the accompanying catalogues have made important contributions to the art history of prints. The Museum shows its prints -- because both paper and colours are sensitive to light - in the rarefied atmosphere of an aquarium-like space where exotic creatures thrive behind thick glass. Billed as an exhibition of modern art, this show is genuinely popular quite an achievement for the art form often considered lowest in the pecking order, and (in the minds of some) tainted by commerce because prints exist in many copies. People will come mainly to see the prints of Picasso and Matisse, but the show has the serious scholarly aim of describing avant-garde print-making in Paris from roughly 1900 to 1960.

The principal theme is the work (and life) of Picasso, itself sufficient justification for seeing this show. From the 'Repas Frugal', a graphic restatement of the famous Blue Period painting, we trace his development through Cubism (with fascinating comparative prints by Dufresne, Villon and Capek) to classicism and beyond. In that beyond, after 1945, Picasso's arresting figurative prints compete with the main stream of expressive abstraction. On reflection, I wonder if Picasso does actually stand comparison with those contemporaries. He is powerful and idiosyncratic, certainly the greatest artist of the century to have made prints, and his work always hovers on the edge of abstraction. But great individuals rarely have much in common with their contemporaries, and Picasso's peers (in originality, parading of self, sheer numbers of prints made) are not to be found among the movements represented here.

Abstract art is given a rather lop-sided treatment, although it seems to have been the starting point for the exhibition. One puzzle is the absence of the Surrealists (Hayter, Masson, Ernst, Dali) in whose prints occur the most interesting development of the 1930s, and necessary as background material to much post-1945 imagery. Some of the 1950s prints are distinctly commercial in feel, produced by specialist printers who would manufacture lithographs for painters keen to manipulate the burgeoning print market. These are precisely the works which give prints a bad name, because often you see no more of the artist's hand in the final print than a pencil signature. …

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